MORGAN CITY — Gov. Bobby Jindal wants a board to adopt a policy that would take project savings from coastal restoration work funded by the Deepwater Horizon payments and use that money to help pay for the elevation work on La. 1 to Port Fourchon.
It’s a move coastal restoration advocates in Louisiana have feared for years before it was introduced Wednesday at the Coastal Protection Restoration Authority meeting in Morgan city.
The proposed policy resolution would make the cost savings available once the planned projects are done, and use the excess money for the road elevation project, which needs about $320 million more for completion.
Although it would be years down the road before the savings could be transferred, some coastal authority board members said the proposed resolution would set a bad precedent and goes against what the board has been saying for years — the money needs to go to coastal restoration projects.
The board took no action Wednesday in order to gather more information about what the change in policy would mean, to resolve legal concerns and to accommodate some board members’ request for more time to consider the proposal.
Chip Kline, chairman of the authority board and director of coastal activities in the governor’s office, said La. 1 is essential to keep access to Port Fourchon open as the non-elevated road is more exposed to flooding. There is work going on to elevate the road from the levee system in Golden Meadow all the way to the elevated roadway in place in Leeville.
“It’s a piece of infrastructure that is essential for the coast,” Kline said. “All of us know that La. 1 needs to be elevated.”
Kline conceded there are some questions that need to be addressed.
“We don’t know if there is a cost savings or even when a cost savings would be realized,” Kline said.
The authority to approve or deny the proposed policy resolution belongs with the coastal authority because the RESTORE Act money in question would be deposited in the Coastal Trust Fund.
Several board members were enthusiastic in their support of the proposed policy.
State Rep. Gordon Dove, R-Houma, who represents Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes, and Windell Curole, general manager at the South Lafourche Levee District, said the road needs to be elevated and this could be a way to do that work.
“La. 1 goes under water when a storm hits Florida or when a storm hits Texas,” Curole said.
The road is the only way to get to Port Fourchon, which serves the offshore oil and gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico and provides about 18 percent of the country’s oil supply.
“It just seems like a logical approach,” Curole said.
Dove said La. 1 also provides the only evacuation route for Grand Isle residents and Port Fourchon workers.
“This is not someone trying to slide in a quick road because there’s money coming in,” Dove said.
While everyone agreed about the importance of elevating the road, other board members want to see savings go to coastal restoration work not included in the original plan.
“I understand the importance of Port Fourchon, but I will tell you that in my opinion, based on everything we’ve done in the last 15 years, these things must be handled separately,” said King Milling, authority board member.
If everything possible isn’t done to work on halting coastal land loss in the state, no one will be talking about Port Fourchon or Grand Isle at all, he said.
“The funding sources have been purposefully dedicated and they should remain so,” Milling said. “I am very concerned whenever I see any attempt to pull money out. That’s just a slippery slope.”
Stafford Palmieri, Jindal’s deputy chief of staff, said the policy does not deviate from the office’s priorities for the coast.
If this money is diverted for this specific road project in Lafourche Parish, why wouldn’t people start looking at the coastal money to solve other issues like work on Interstate 49 or Interstate 55, he said.
“There are problems in north Louisiana, central Louisiana and south Louisiana, and clearly they could be fixed if you could move money away from this (coastal restoration and protection),” Milling said.
State Sen. Blade Morrish, R-Jennings, and board member, said he wanted to be very careful and make sure the proposed policy was thoroughly investigated before taking any action that might set bad precedent.
“I don’t want the credibility of this board to be questioned,” Morrish said.
Palmieri disagreed, adding that the La. 1 work can’t be compared to other projects in the state.
“This is not setting a precedent. La. 1 is special due to its economic importance to the coast, the state and the country,” she said.
A number of coastal nonprofit group representatives opposed moving the money to other uses, highlighting that the state has made multiple commitments that the money would be used in wetlands work.
Although the state stands to get $1 billion to cover state economic losses from the spill as part of a tentative settlement from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, all of the money has already been allocated by the state Legislature, Kline said.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.